Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

_78420902_sweden_sub_map624 Ingaro Bay BBC

Ingaro Bay

Last Friday, Swedish media reported the siting of an unidentified foreign submarine lurking in Swedish waters not all that far from Stockholm. This set off a wave of speculation, finger pointing, rafts of unanswered questions, memories of the Cold War, a still submerged vessel and crew, and an immediate and predictable Russian disinformation barrage – in this instance pointing the finger at the Dutch.  According to the Kremlin, the submarine the Swedes reported was, likely, a Dutch U-boat:  This according to that fount of Russian misinformation – Russia Today.

After an equally rapid Dutch denial, the Russians then claimed that the submarine must be a chimera, just a figment of Swedish imagination.

According to Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) a major daily Swedish newspaper, Swedish intelligence sources had detected a foreign object, likely a mini-submarine, in distress near the Swedish shore.  The Swedish military’s search – according to the BBC – has concentrated on Ingaro Bay – not far from Stockholm. 

According to the same Swedish sources, that same submarine’s Russian speaking crew was overheard to be in contact with the Russian naval base at Kaliningrad, a Cold War remnant, located between Lithuania and Poland, likely the baby submarine’s home port on October 16 and 17.  

The next thing that happened was the arrival of the “Concord,” a Russian-owned oil tanker flying the Liberian flag – perhaps coming to help the submarine crew fix whatever its problem or who knows what.  The Concord has apparently moved on.  Or maybe it was just hovering in international waters – as oil tankers apparently do – as the Russians suggested.  Then there’s the MS Logachev, a Russian research vessel that arrived in the area thereafter.

The Dutch government quickly denied the Russian Dutch U-Boat accusation. But how likely is it that a Dutch crew would be Russian-speaking or sending distress signals in Russian to a Russian naval base even if their vessel was lurking in Swedish waters.

Face it, the Netherlands is a member of NATO.   Sweden and Finland recently signed a partnership agreement with NATO, and although the Dutch speak a number of languages well Russian is normally not the one of choice.

For that matter one has to wonder why the Dutch would be interested in spying on Swedish naval capabilities in the Baltic Sea anyway or that a Russian-owned oil-tanker or research vessel parked just outside Swedish waters would be sent to help out a Dutch vessel in distress.  This is just the sort of questionable yarn that lights up the late night comedy shows hosted by Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.

 “Whiskey on the Rocks” vs the Kursk: Comedy versus tragedy

When I worked in Helsinki at the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Navy made secret forays into Swedish waters then too.  The Soviets had being doing this for a good twenty years.  The Swedes would usually not make the underwater intrusions public until their numbers swelled and the Swedish military got fed up playing chase-the-Soviet-sub-out-of-Swedish waters –or perhaps a sharp-eyed civilian would start to ask questions publicly and the story would surface in the media.

In 1981, a Soviet Whiskey Class submarine with nuclear weapons on board ran aground on Swedish rocks near Karlskrona.  The red faced Soviets had to come to collect it and its crew when the Swedes dislodged it and brought it to surface.  That misadventure became known as “Whiskey on the Rocks,” but at least the crew survived and the submarine was towed home. 

In August 2000, the Russians lost the Kursk – a nuclear-powered submarine carrying cruise missiles as a part of Russian war games in the Barents Sea.  The Russians didn’t exactly lose track of it; an explosion occurred in one of its missile chambers when the crew was ordered to fire.

But the Kursk’s inexperienced, untrained crew and the Russian Navy were no match for seeping concentrated hydrogen-peroxide plus other chemicals which unleashed a chain-reaction explosion.  All members of the crew tragically and needlessly perished because the Russians didn’t have the equipment or know how and refused to accept offers of help from the US, Britain and Norway in rescuing the 118 member crew.

Had the Russian navy responded fast enough 23 members of the crew might have survived. When the far more experienced Norwegians were finally allowed to engage in a joint rescue operation, it didn’t take long to reach the submarine and open the hatch (which had meanwhile filled with water sealing the fate of the 23).  Unfortunately, all of the Russian seamen had already needlessly perished while the Russian military dilly-dallied around for five days and Putin sunbathed at a presidential villa in Sochi.    

The Kursk calamity happened early in Vladimir Putin’s first term. The Russian military spin-meisters initially tried to pin the disaster on a collision with a foreign submarine pointing the finger squarely at the West.  Although this spurious accusation aroused anti-Western sentiment among the Russian population, the Russian navy was clearly to blame itself.  Moreover, Putin’s cavalier response to the disaster did not forebode well for the future welfare of the Russian military – let alone the country’s ordinary citizens.

Whether the “Hunt for Black October”- as the most recent Russian submarine fiasco has been dubbed by FP – turns out to resemble the comedic “Whiskey on the Rocks” episode or the Kursk’s tragic outcome remains to be seen. 

The best thing the Russians could do – if this is more than ahem, a chimera – is fess up, ask for assistance, take the crew and baby submarine home and leave a neutral neighbor’s territorial rocks and waters alone.

Such risky and provocative behavior only puts the neighbors on edge and results in loss of face and needless troubles.  Just as is happening because of increased Russian intrusion into Finnish and Swedish airspace and the interception by two NATO jets of a Russian surveillance plane that briefly flew over NATO member Estonia on Wednesday after previously being intercepted by a Swedish military jet over Sweden.  That’s another story. 

But for what? To increase the size of the Swedish military budget and improve the country’s defense capabilities and increase its cooperation with NATO?  Is that what the Kremlin really wants?